Effort to increase state troopers advances in Montana

| Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Montana Highway Patrol would get more money to put additional officers on the road and pay higher salaries to keep them from defecting to other agencies under a bill sent to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Residents in the state would foot the bill.

House lawmakers voted 66-33 on April 15 to give the bill their final blessing and advance it the governor. HB35 passed the Senate days earlier.

The number of uniformed patrol officers in the state has declined by 6 percent in the past 30 years to just over 200 while Montana’s population grew 32 percent, The Associated Press reported.

Low pay and long hours were cited as the main reasons many officers left the force.

Sponsored by Rep. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, the bill would alter the source for patrol salaries from the state’s fuel tax to a new vehicle tag fee. Supporters of the bill want fuel tax money earmarked for roads.

The bill would generate an estimated $6.5 million each year by adding a $5 fee to motor vehicle registrations. About $3.4 million of that would be used in fiscal year 2007 to increase patrol salaries and to hire 20 more officers to increase the patrol’s presence on Montana highways, with the rest going for as many as 50 new officers in coming years.

It would open up as many as 14 positions within the patrol by removing a state mandate requiring the agency to leave jobs unfilled to stay within its budget, The AP reported.

The raises would be based on the average starting pay for deputy sheriffs in the eight counties where the bulk of the officers are stationed. The bill also makes patrol salaries part of the governor’s budget, meaning they wouldn’t have to be renewed every year like other state employees.